#891 Dealing with the dark

Here the Dark
by David Bergen

Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2020
$21.99 / 9781771963213

Reviewed by William New

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Editor’s note: David Bergen’s Here the Dark is one of 11 books in the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2020 longlist, announced on September 8, 2020.

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Subtitled “a novella and stories,” David Bergen’s Here the Dark brings together seven short stories (some of them previously published and singled out for praise) and the title novella. Many readers will already know that the term novella is a problematic one for those who seek a definition — it’s been called an extra-long short story, or an extra-short novel, or both; it’s a form with its own magic, say others, but too short to publish on its own; it’s characterized by its elliptical nature, easing up on description and plot and focussing instead on the revelation of character; or it resists definition and asks only to be read and appreciated. Famous stories that have been called novellas include Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: the range is wide, and there is little agreement that a single definition fits them all. Of the 215 pages in Bergen’s book, “Here the Dark,” in three “chapters,” occupies 89 of them. And (typos aside) it’s the most arresting story in the whole collection.

Like Bergen’s earlier work — notable titles include A Year of Lesser (1996), The Case of Lena S. (2002), The Time in Between (2005), Leaving Tomorrow (2015), and Stranger (2016) — this new book asks why faith is important in the present world (and what its limitations are), why violence happens (and when), how ordinary lives are wracked both by politics and ethics (or, what does morality have to do with sex and desire and anger and irrationality). Bergen’s settings range from the Manitoba bush to the illusory calm of a conservative Mennonite community, and from war-torn Guatemala to war-torn Viet Nam. These are serious stories, asking serious questions about conventions of behaviour and the consequences of decisions made passively or under duress. They are earnest rather than comic; they ask what if rather than accede to current conventions and ready answers. Bergen writes, in short, as an advocate for the freedom to inquire.

David Bergen. Photo by Bogner

Hence asking questions becomes a narrative methodology. In this book Bergen asks about faith and God, goodness and evil, choice and regulation, sex and gender politics, illness and the parameters of love. Again and again faith gives rise to doubt but ultimately is not itself under attack; rather, it’s the ground against which all action takes place — or perhaps, in this rendition, must take place. Hence in many ways the short stories in Here the Dark read a little like codas to Bergen’s earlier novels: places where his characters can try to work out whether breaking a rule is justified, how they are privileged by race and opportunity, why their sexuality so often runs afoul of their desire for faith. Some of the same settings recur: the Manitoba bush, the Mennonite community, Guatemala, Viet Nam. Water is a recurrent metaphor — lakes and oceans are inviting places, yet dangerously ambivalent. And the narratives in Here the Dark give rise to a raft of inter-related questions. If, as in “April in Snow Lake” (a bush story), a character is advised to “trust yourself,” then what are the parameters of knowledge that inform action? How to choose and Who gets to choose interact. In “Never too late,” Bev is a woman paralyzed with MS but whose sexuality is still alive and strong — which her initially uncertain but then active partner learns, as he is led to accept that fear can be a kind of happiness. Quinn, in “Man Lost,” takes a boy fishing in order that he might learn patience — “Patience presided over and usurped the sins of the world, though Quinn did not hold to any notion of sin or wrongdoing. Consequence was all” — but he’s up against rigidities in the adult world (the idea that “man is evil,” for instance, an arbitrariness that only parenthood, time, and the ocean seem able to absolve).

Bergen’s style throughout is generally laconic, the voice of the quiet observer and recorder, roused by passion and violence, sensitive to irony (perhaps especially in “Leo Fell”), but cautious with flamboyance and seldom given to sharp aside — though when Quinn first observes the boy he’s about to take fishing, he characterizes the boy “ever so briefly, as a man with a money clip and barbarous privilege,” a rare open departure from a deliberately chiselled neutrality. The figures and activities in these stories may be imagined, but they’re drawn from life: rancher, stripper, math teacher, child; swimming, bowling, fishing, biking; marriages working or gone awry; Canadian Tire and cigarettes: a catalogue of the familiar. But evil and the sins of the world also prove to be ordinary encounters here. And by adding them to his catalogue of laconic realities, Bergen translates the mundane into an ethical battleground of giant proportions, one not perhaps beyond the reach of human understanding but challenging, and well within the experience of human lives.

David Bergen at home in Winnipeg. Photo by Mikaela MacKenzie, Winnipeg Free Press
David Bergen, born in Port Edward, BC, in 1957

His novella, “Here the Dark,” traces in more detail how ethics and actions coincide and collide in the life of a single character: the emblematically named Lily Isaac. Lily is a Mennonite woman who in her girlhood has been told that questioning and doubt are dangerous, because they “were forms of sin and sin could only lead to hell.” She’s an unusual girl. While her “life in the Brethren Church” is from early on “defined by the word no,” she nevertheless continues to ask questions that others think impertinent. When she tells her father she wants to go to high school, he answers “Ideas are strong and insidious” — to which she responds “Ours or theirs?” The narrative unfolds from here. She gathers words from the Reader’s Digest, makes jam, secretly watches television for the ads — she’s infatuated with the vividness of “physical objects” — and at nineteen she marries Johan Gerbrandt, the son of a neighbour. In time she discovers that the more she seeks sexual satisfaction with Johan, the more he retreats into the rigid definition of normality that is sanctified by the (male) elders, who in turn visit Lily, judge and condemn her, then require the entire community to shun her. Communally, love is redefined, leaving Lily out.

The story probes the psychological consequences not just of these several differences in character but also of the competing ideologies they embody and the darkness to be found there. Lily comes alive as Here the Dark develops, with peripheral characters graphically filling out the alternatives she meets, considers, and undertakes: open rebellion (her refusal to attend church); feminist independence (through the character of her cousin Marcie); dalliance (with Johan’s brother); punitive vitriol (in the mouth of her mother-in-law); duty, acceptance, routine. Everything, everyone, focuses on Lily, but “success” (by any definition) is neither obvious nor guaranteed. Nor, perhaps, expected. Throughout the novella, Bergen uses such phrases as “And so it came to be” and “So it was.” The effect is less of passivity than of parable: of an illustrative history of what happens to community when the people in it have learned to hide from themselves. The apparent simplicity of Bergen’s prose voices a sensibility at once affirmative and sad, male in its perspective, elliptical in its hope, and in its “dark” implications intensely troubling.

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William (Bill) New

William New is the author of Reading Mansfield & Metaphors of Form (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999); he has written widely on short fiction in Canada, Australasia, and elsewhere. He is also the author of a dozen collections of poetry, including The Rope-Maker’s Tale (Oolichan Books, 2009) and Neighbours (Oolichan, 2017). Editor’s note: William New has reviewed books by Darcy BysouthJulie PaulPhilip Huynh, and B.A. Thomas-Peter for The Ormsby Review.

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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